VENICE – Filled with unexpected turns and subversive humor, Werner Herzog’s “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” is a jazzy and very entertaining riff on the theme of a cop who spends too much time in a sewer of criminality and corruption.
It’s a far cry from Abel Ferrara’s NC17 1992 film with a similar title and it will appeal to a different audience. It has a seriously involved performance by Nicolas Cage as a good detective on a downward spiral of drugs and gambling. There is a lot of very black humor, and it develops, somewhat surprisingly, into something that suggests a kind of cheerful pessimism.
Herzog has made a piece of mainstream entertainment with quirky particulars and with Cage’s star power it could see substantial rewards from the box office both domestic and international. The film was greeted in Venice with much laughter and, at the end, with loud and sustained applause.
Veteran TV cop show writer William Finkelstein’s screenplay sets the story in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and it allows Herzog to explore the way bad things happen to good people while crooked people prosper.
Cage plays a dedicated police officer named Terence McDonaugh who in the opening sequence jumps into a flooded basement cell to save a locked up prisoner from drowning. He causes permanent injury to his back and while prescribed medicines ease the chronic pain that he’s left with, soon he’s taking illegal drugs, whatever he can find or steal.
The framework of the picture is a police procedural with McDonaugh and his colleagues, including Steve (Val Kilmer) on the trail of the killers of a family of five caught up in drug dealing.
All the while, McDonaugh is trying to score whatever will make the pain go away and there are many inventive, scary and sometimes hilarious scenes to show how he goes about it. He has a hooker junky girlfriend (Eva Mendes, pictured with Cage) and a tolerant bookie (Brad Dourif), and he runs afoul of some powerful bad guys while playing ball with a significantly dangerous drug lord.
Kilmer doesn’t get to do much but Mendes and Dourif make fine contributions, as do Fairuza Balk as an amorous former flame and Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner as the drug king. But it’s Cage’s show and his body language conveys just how much pain McDonaugh is in with one shoulder permanently clenched and his gaze on alert for the next fix. It’s a sly and intelligent performance that brings to mind the tortured character he portrayed in the grievously overlooked “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988).
Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” was a lurid depiction of a very damaged detective made memorable by a fully committed performance by Harvey Keitel. That cop’s drug induced delusions involved a lot of Catholic guilt and visions of Christ. Herzog mischievously has the cop in his film see lizards. Iguanas and alligators pop up when least expected and there’s a very funny scene in which the camera captures an iguana up close with Cage’s demented cop in the frame and they look weirdly related.
Venue: Venice International Film Festival, In Competition; Cast: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge; Director: Werner Herzog; Writer: William Finkelstein; Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger; Production designer: Toby Corbett; Music: Mark Isham; Costume designer: Jill Newell; Editor: Joe Bini; Producers: Edward R. Pressman, Randall Emmett, Alan Polsky, Gaby Polsky, Stephen Belafonte; Executive producers: Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson; Production: Nu Image/Millennium Films; Sales: Millennium Films; Not rated; running time, 121 minutes.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.